Le Van Loc, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Tran Nu Yen-Khe, Nhu Quynh Nguyen
Director: Tran Anh Hung
Quick, name a movie about Vietnam - something to do with the war, right? Understandable, given its effect on the country, but something director Tran Anh Hung wanted to change with his trilogy about the country of his birth.
His debut, The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), set in 1950s Saigon, was Oscar-nominated for best foreign film. The Ho Chi Minh City-set Cyclo (1995) was similarly acclaimed, winning the Golden Lion in Venice, followed by the Hanoi-set The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000).
Cyclo is set 20 years after 1975's fall of Saigon (the director, then 12 years old, and his family arrived in France at that time), and follows a young cyclo driver (Le Van Loc), forced into crime when his rickshaw is stolen. Hong Kong's Tony Leung Chiu-wai plays the gangster who takes him under his wing - after a fashion.
No character has a name, with Loc credited as The Cyclo and Leung as The Poet. While The Cyclo goes from burning rival cyclo garages to potentially having to commit murder, The Poet pimps The Cyclo's sister while trying to preserve her virginity; he also services The Madam, who runs the gang.
As in many Vietnam war films, their intertwining arcs come to violent climaxes at Tet.
The pace is languorous and meditative, with the camera gliding over faces and the city. The photography is alternately lush and stark. There is little dialogue. In Leung's case this is perhaps to keep his Vietnamese to a minimum, but the wide variety of self-loathing his haunted face conveys steals the film. It is reminiscent of his later famous turn in In the Mood for Love - indeed the film shares similarities with Wong Kar-wai's, in its meditative pace and beautiful imagery.
Almost every character is damaged by the loss or neglect of a father or husband; perhaps this is Hung's comment on Vietnam's post-war generation. Present, too, is an attitude to capitalism and "modernisation" that is at best ambivalent, but a "message" is never hammered into the audience.
Indeed, the narrative takes a little getting used to. Often what actually happens in one scene only becomes clear in a later one, while Leung's voiceover poetry and regular interludes of traditional songs from amateur performers add to the dreamlike feel.
But settle into the pace and tone, and it's a film whose effect lingers. As Leung is quoted as saying in a couple of online biographies: " The Poet is still with me today."